How States Can Encourage Scientific Innovation in Ways No One Else Can

by Dr. Ivy Estabrooke, Executive Director of Utah Science Technology & Research Initiative, and Dr. Melissa Flagg, CEO of Flagg Consulting.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

With a new administration in Washington, discussions of state’s rights are gaining support on both sides of the aisle. The impact of state’s rights are clear in the domain of land use, gun rights, and local control of education, but what are the opportunities with state controls of other public goods, specifically science and technology development?

In the years following the end of World War II, multiple federal agencies were established to foster science and technology development, particularly in the basic and applied research stages, maintaining U.S. dominance in military technology, health, and medicine and economic development. Since 1950, the federal government has spent more than $5 trillion on research and development, crossing disciplines and applications from the sequencing of the genome to the internet to the carbon composites on the Joint Strike Fighter (F35).

As the political winds turn to state control, there is an opportunity to examine how the research enterprise would benefit from a state specific approach.

Over the last few decades, states including Utah, California, and Georgia have initiated programs that fund science and technology programs with state appropriations. These examples can serve as models of a state approach to advancing science and technology development might look like.

In Utah, the state has invested in the recruitment and endowment of research faculty positions at the University of Utah and Utah State University that support a wide swatch of research, ranging from plasma-based sensors to advanced techniques for genomic analysis. These recruitments and focused competitive funding for research at the state level have stimulated innovation to solve local problems in the energy sector. They have also provided solutions to treat depression and anxiety that are uniquely exasperated by the altitude in the intermountain west and transportation solutions that reduce air pollution. In addition, this approach develops a talent pipeline aligned to the local innovation economy, which opens experiential learning opportunities and supports the pillars of economic development at the state level.

Dr. Ivy Estabrooke (left), executive director of USTAR, & Dr. Melissa Flagg (right), CEO of Flagg Consulting

The state-focused approach to funding science and technology provides the opportunity to structure investigation, teams and the larger ecosystem that facilitates the translation of basic research into solutions, products and economic diversity. Innovation hubs that have sprung up in Silicon Valley, Boston/route 128 corridor, and along the Silicon Slopes have in common a local focus on a specific technology sector with local resources brought to bear. State-based approaches will allow innovation hubs to spring up around state research strengths and needs.

One challenge that needs to be considered in state models is how to preserve the long-term investments in basic research that provide the foundation for future economic development, health advances and technological advances. This long horizon return will require state leadership to protect and ensure that it is maintained.

During the H.W. Bush administration, the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government provided recommendations to the federal government on reassessing the federal research enterprise. The report lays out the importance of including states as full partners in identifying priorities for science and research as well as utilizing the diversity of state approaches and strengths to experiment in both the conduct of science.

This state involvement in regional scientific innovation is still just as relevant, or perhaps even more so, today and in this new administration. The engagement of states in the scientific and research enterprise will allow for natural experiments to occur in states as mini-incubators and accelerators for innovative ideas. These incubators will only help us explore more scientific discoveries that can help our nation become healthier, more efficient, less contaminated and safer, simultaneously.

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